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Parenting with Anxiety - Part I

‘Not everything that weighs you down, is yours to carry’. Anonymous.

I was a trainee General Practictioner (GP) the first time I was called a ‘worrier’. I remember feeling taken aback; is that what the term for me was? It sounded like a nice way to tell me I was anxious and anxious was definitely not a good thing. My mum was anxious. Sometimes her anxiety would overwhelm me, even as a small child. Can I go for a sleepover mum? The response would invariably be something beginning with; ‘what if. ’What if something happened to you?’. ‘What if you fail all your exams because you went out...? My mother was the master of the ‘what if ...?’

As I grew up I think I assumed it was just part of my genetic profile. I worried about my parents’ finances and how much things would cost. About their health and whether they would die. About whether I would get into medical school and be ‘successful’. I worried that no one would love me and be my partner in life. Which would mean I would never be a mother and achieve the part of ‘success’ that had been defined to me as a child. Unsurprisingly, my worries led to burn out at the tender age of 18. I flunked my A-levels and sloped off to Uni doing whatever course they would allow me to do, as long as it meant I could move into Halls of Residence and begin my new life of not worrying.

I think for those three years of University, I managed that. Well I still worried but I did a good job of burying it. Because the ‘worst’ had happened to me and actually it had all turned out rather well. I had friends, I had fun, I was alive.

Sometimes The Worry would try to burst through but I would avoid It mostly by avoiding the people that would give it to me. I didn’t know it then but a lot of the worries weren’t actually mine. They belonged to other people close to me, giving me theirs. If I could meet that version of me now, I would say to her, relax, you don’t have to run away. You don’t have to take their worries. Just give it back to them.

Although, I manage that with limited success now at the wise age of 41, so I’m pretty sure it would have been impossible for me age 20. Much easier to hide or squash the worry lava back down and put a lid on it. By finally managing to live with the premise I have always been told by non-worriers was the thing to do: live in the present. Live in the now, the here and the today. My only thoughts were; what would I wear tonight, which party should we go to, what shall we eat, what shall we watch.

But still I had this notion, if you worried about the worst case scenario enough and analysed and prepared yourself for every part of it then somehow if the worst happened, then you would be prepared and it would soften the blow at least.

This worked a treat for what I now see were my minor worries. What if I don’t pass my exam? I will just retake. And if I fail that? Then I retake again. Or do something else. What if I run out of cash.? There’s always the overdraft and dad will help. Small comforts in my worst-case scenarios and I could sleep.

I didn’t see a psychologist then, but if I had I know they would show me how bizarre that comfort was. Because then, when the new worst happened, it turned out that it didn’t soften the blow. It didn’t make it any less shit. When your horrors became reality then your heart sank low in your gut as it did in your worst nightmare. You broke out into sweats, you screamed and cried, but you didn’t wake up. Turns out, there is no preparing for that and the hours of worrying are now a painful reminder of the precious time you wasted on those sweet days before this horrible reality was true.

I digress. Funny how there is a grading system of worries now. 21 year-old-me would have said that graduation brought the worst worry monster out again. Will I make it through medical school? The shock of having to leave my home city to finish training. Being the city girl that had to learn to drive. The night shifts full of sick patients struggling to breathe, the cardiac arrest bleep, the certainty of death. All paled into insignificance when baby K arrived a few years later.

Turns out that love is directly proportional to worry. Becoming a mother was a literal explosion of love and worry all entangled together like some complicated ball of multi-coloured wool.

They told me it was baby blues but… what if… what if kept dancing around my head like some sort of tortuous litany. What if I mess him up? What if something bad happens to him? How do people take this responsibility on for the rest of their lives? One brief thought about how some people do this all by themselves was enough to make me weep and weep in awe and fear and wonder.

It was overwhelming. He was a healthy baby but one hospital admission with gastro that year was enough to scar me for another ten years to come. Holding his little hand whilst they poked and prodded him. My Obstetrics and Paediatric jobs had given me nightmares but they were still nothing compared to this. The responsibility of this small human. The mortality of all of us. All those stories and movies about people chasing the elixir of life, the key to immortality. I would move heaven and earth to give that to my son. Something that would keep him alive forever and always protect him from harm.

In pregnancy I had put it down to hormones. The fact that I couldn’t sit in a chid safeguarding course anymore because I would get palpitations and cry in the toilets about what people on this earth would do to children. I’d switch off the news and leave movies with those dark themes, willing myself not to think about it.

Watching my beautiful boy grow up I tried very hard to be a 'relaxed parent. Let him run around out of sight? Sure. Go to the very top of the climbing frame? Why not! How about later, shall we give him a phone? Let him walk home by himself?

Suddenly though I had found a new motivation to live in the present: do not be anxious in front of K or you will give him the anxiety bug like it was given to you. I did not want him to feel like this. The feeling of impending doom. The worry of everything all the time.

Back to trying to close the lid on the worry then, don’t show it, hide it away. It’s impossible, like telling yourself not to sneeze when you have a cold. Processing it was impossible too, I had no safe space to do that in. Tell the wrong person and the anxiety ballooned, tell the right person and they catch the worry from you, like some sort of contagious disease.

Being married to a non-worrier was painful at times. Trying to tell a non-worrier what anxiety feels like is like trying to explain about what life is like on another planet. ‘Don’t worry, be happy; I’m here’. They were nice things to say to me, the alien living on this other planet all by myself.

I tried to explain to my 5-year-old recently what the difference was between ‘worry’ and ‘nervous’ and ‘excited’. It seemed to be a spectrum of positive to negative connotations. The realisation that they are all actually the same thing hit me; you decide which one to use depending on the outcome.

Surely it's good to be a little anxious? The butterflies in an exam, meeting someone you fancy, speaking in front of people. Absolutely normal for your heart to race a bit right? Palms sweaty, pupils dilate and chest feels a little tight. Our primitive warning system set off by modern day triggers.

There's a book called: ‘The Huge Bag of Worries' by Virginia Ironside, which I bought when my son’s teachers said the dreaded words to me : ‘He always looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders..’ Queue self-blame and panic (you didn’t hide your worries enough and now he’s caught the worry bug!) I read the book to my son, willing him to not put anything in his worry bag; ‘Give it all to me and I will blow it all away’, I said.

How do I tell him not do what I do all the time? My husband would regularly listen to me just to air the highlights of what was in my bag. And still there was more that I would keep in there. You can't take everything out surely?

Though talking to my son about what was in his bag, I realised I could do this with him. Take the stuff out together, give it back to people who gave it to us, blow kisses at the minor ones and share the big ones so that they don’t seem so heavy. My goodness, had I just figured out what love is?

So was it nature or nurture? A rhetorical question I liked to ask myself. I needed to learn to love myself so that means I had to love my worries. Stop seeing it as some sort of blight and embrace it somehow. Apparently, it is selected for in Natural Selection; people who worry spot the dangers and give us an early warning system to hide. That notion gave me comfort.

Then along came middle child and she broke the lid off my worries and exploded it out onto my life like a big blanket smothering me. She was beautiful but there was something wrong. Medically speaking. What was it? How could we treat it? No answers. Just more questions.


GP Maman is a mother to three children aged 9, 4 and 5-months. She was born in Iran but grew up in the UK and her children are half South-African. She works as a General Practitioner in the UK and enjoys writing and advocating for her patients in her spare time.

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